20 Kilometres and a World Away

Being place the eyeshot of the Greek society, that’s how it feels for most of the Syrian asylum-seeker of “camp ritsona”. Creatively, the residents are creating normality in the distant site, 20 kilometers from the next town.

70 kilometres separate Ritsona from Greece’s bustling capital city. For most, this is a negligible distance. With a car, the road can be covered in 50 minutes. But for the 650 refugees living at Ritsona Camp, any journey outside the gates of the camp requires patience and creativity.

As he walks through the gate and the dirt driveway at Ritsona Camp’s entrance, Ahmed’s friends are already awaiting his return. He is tired after a long journey, having walked for 30 minutes from the nearest bus station under the noon sun. On his back, he carries a package of supplies: shampoo, cigarettes, oil, meadow grass for chicken, gas cookers, nuts, and food that tastes a little bit like home. Carefully, he arranges these treasures from Athens on the plastic table prominently displaying the wares of “Supermarket Abuhamse.”

Since March of 2016, when the Syrian man arrived at camp, he has procured items from Athens to sell in camp, until he proudly gave his initiative its name, now well-known amongst camp residents. For the community at the camp, food distribution provides limited options, and the surrounding area of Ritsona has few markets that they can frequent to pick their own products. At Supermarket Abuhamse, Ahmed doesn’t just sell groceries. In a small, but meaningful way, his market provides a sense of indendence, a way to determine the course of their daily lives.

©Tommy Chavannes

Ahmed with a young customer at supermarket Abuhamse ©Tommy Cavannes

The Doors Are Open, But It Feels Like a Cage

Ritsona is located 20 km away from the nearest town, Chalkida. This distance brings frustrating limitations to the camp residents of Ritsona. Ritsona was previously a military air base. Today, taxis are a rarity in the remote area, and none of the municipal buses stop at the site. Hitch-hiking often remains the only option for residents to go to Chalkida. Only a few of the residents can afford to rent a car for a respite from a camp that seems hidden from Greek daily life.

For two young Kurds at the camp, Alan and Shervan, mobility is a basic need that is limited due to the situation in Ritsona.“Its true that the doors are open but it still feels like a cage” says Alan. He has been to town a couple of times to go out, enjoy food, go to the supermarket and buy supplies – things he would normally do back home. However, here in Greece, these rare visits to town cost him around 30 EUR round trip.  It is an expensive but invaluable trip.

©Tommy Chavannes

Alan at the entrance of Ritsona camp, and the long road to Chalkida. ©Tommy Cavannes

“There are a lot of things I miss here” reflects Shervan. He has only been out of the camp three times, by hitch-hiking.“I would feel better if the camp was located by a town or city,” he adds, echoing a common sentiment.

 Searching for Normality Outside of Ritsona

Besides primary needs (food, shelter, water and sanitation) the secondary needs of the residents become more pressing the longer they stay in camp. Volunteer organisations are trying to fill that vacuum with daily activities and are also helping to prepare the community for the next step of their journey; there are English and German classes. After being stranded in Greece for six months the need for normality becomes vital. But normality lies outside, in the distant town.

“The camp feels like just another prison” former camp resident Sulaymaan says in his new apartment in the centre of Chalkida. Privacy is what he needed most after four months in Ritsona, he explains sitting in his living room with baby-blue coloured walls.

 “Here I can decide whenever I would like to eat, cook, have a shower or just be by myself”.

After looking for a private apartment for more than two months, he finally managed to leave the camp. Since then, he spends his days strolling around the town, meeting friends, sitting in cafes and writing applications while learning English. After nine months in Greece, a sense of normality has finally resumed. He feels free now, he says with a warm smile.

A rare examples: Sulaayman choose to move to Chalkida ©Tommy Cavannes

A rare examples: Sulaayman choose to move to Chalkida ©Tommy Cavannes

Sulaymaan is a rare representation of refugees in Chalkida, a town of 60,000 inhabitants that draws tourists to its waterside promenade. “Its seems like the Greek government wanted to situate the problem outside”, Sulaymaan says, “people just pass Greece, but the locals fear that we are harming the economy”.

Present Yet Invisible to the Chalkda Community

Local taxi driver Sakis Stamelos says the locals in Chalkida are somewhat skeptic about the refugees.“People would associate the refugees with illnesses and criminality, just because they they are invisible for most of Chalkida’s locals and they can’t get to know them better.”

“What matters is not the distance but the conditions,” Sakis points out. Because he has driven residents back and forth, he has visited the camp three times. “Only dust and tents” he reported to his friends and colleagues, “not what one expects.” “You really have to go there to understand it,”he says, referencing a segregation that goes beyond the physical distance.

At Gold Bar in Central Chalkida, a lively crowd of all ages relaxes and sips cappuccino and espresso. At this social hotspot, the patrons all know each other. When he’s not greeting people and shaking hands, owner Akis Koutsevlis watches over the activity from behind the bar. So far, Koutsevlis has seen volunteers resting in his cafe, but no refugees. “I don’t understand why the camp is so far away” Akis Koutsevlis, the owner of Gold Bar, stresses.“The camp should be close to the city”, Koutsevlis says, adding that he would love to have more contact with those arriving.

A mere 20 minutes drive away, Ahmed Abuhamse seels powdered coffee so that residents can get their coffee. In Chalkida as passers-by stroll on the the waterfron promenade, milling in and out of coffee shops and restaurants, Supermarket Abuhamse and the refugee issues feels to present yet still so distant.